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Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Loneliness and Isolation Theme Icon
Nature and Time Theme Icon
Heroism Theme Icon
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Grendel, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon

Grendel can be seen as a novel of competing ideas. Different characters try to make sense of the world in different ways, and as Grendel progresses through the novel, he must choose which set of theories or beliefs he adheres to. On one end of the spectrum, Grendel’s mother experiences the world in purely physical, sensual way, and does not question or theorize at all. Grendel rejects this simplistic approach to the world early in the novel, and develops his own theories—for example, the idea that the world consists entirely of Grendel and not-Grendel. The humans, noted by the dragon for their “crackpot theories”, offer another system of beliefs with their ideas of heroism, religion, and logic. Grendel rejects the ideas of the humans, mocking their religion, and is generally persuaded by the dragon, who offers the novel’s most complete system of philosophy.

The dragon believes in the ultimate meaninglessness of the universe and takes a self-centered approach to the world, advising Grendel to “seek out gold and sit on it.” Grendel’s various struggles with the world and with other characters can be seen as a struggle with different sets of ideas and different philosophies. When Beowulf defeats Grendel, he not only physically overcomes him, but also overcomes him with his “lunatic theory” that the world is only what Grendel’s mind makes it. Whereas the dragon claimed that the world was meaningless, Beowulf goes as far as to assert that the world only exists because Grendel perceives it, that there is no way to separate its existence from Grendel's own, suggesting that even the notion of history or time beyond Grendel's own existence is immaterial. As Grendel struggles to maintain his belief in the dragon’s philosophy, Beowulf’s ideas are almost as painful to him as the tearing off of his arm. Grendel repeats, “[Beowulf’s] syllables lick at me, chilly fire.” The novel thus culminates not only with the physical conflict between Beowulf and Grendel, but also with the conflict of their competing beliefs.

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Philosophy, Theory, and Belief ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Philosophy, Theory, and Belief appears in each chapter of Grendel. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Quotes in Grendel

Below you will find the important quotes in Grendel related to the theme of Philosophy, Theory, and Belief.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Behind my back, at the world’s end, my pale slightly glowing fat mother sleeps on, old, sick at heart, in our dingy underground room. Life-bloated, baffled, long-suffering hag. Guilty, she imagines, of some unremembered, perhaps ancestral crime. (She must have some human in her.) Not that she thinks. Not that she dissects and ponders the dusty mechanical bits of her miserable life’s curse.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Grendel’s Mother
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we're introduced to Grendel's mother--a fearsome monster who, unlike Grendel himself, doesn't have the gift of speech. Grendel seems to feel no real affection for his mother whatsoever--instead, he regards her as a bloated hag. Grendel's lack of affection for his mother is paradoxical--on one hand, it's proof of his dignity and humanity (he's rejecting the barbarism with which he's usually associated); on the other, it suggests his own barbarism (it's barbaric to reject your own family).

Grendel is truly alone in the universe--even his own mother can't give him the company and conversation he craves. Grendel despises his mother because she represents everything he hates about himself--his ugliness, his foreignness to the humans, etc. Grendel aspires to be a thinker and a talker, but he can never form lasting bonds with other creatures because of his fearsome appearance. It's only appropriate that Grendel should both love and hate his mom.


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The king has lofty theories of his own. “Theories,” I whisper to the bloodstained ground. So the dragon once spoke. (“They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories!” I recall his laugh.)

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Hrothgar, The Dragon
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Grendel talks about the prevalence of "theories" among human beings. Grendel notes that most of the humans with whom he's fighting believe that he is a punishment sent from god. Grendel also notes that the king of the humans, Hrothgar, has different theories about the Grendel--theories which are no more accurate than his subjects'.

There's a lot to unpack here. First, it's clear that Grendel rejects humans' theories--indeed, much of human culture--as nonsense. The belief in god, for instance, is just a superstition to Grendel. Grendel is dismissive of human beliefs, but he's also insightful enough to tell the difference between Hrothgar's beliefs (the belief in heroism, it's implied) and his subjects' beliefs (a more religious belief in god and divinity).

The passage also mentions the Dragon--an almost omniscient yet somewhat unreliable character who embraces chaos and sneers at anyone who tries to make sense of it. The Dragon believes that all religions and beliefs are attempts to make sense of pain and suffering--attempts that do nothing to alleviate this suffering. (Hell burns, whether you have a theory about it or not.)

Chapter 2 Quotes

I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker)
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Grendel recalls sketching out a radical theory of the universe: he is the only being who exists, imposing his reality upon chaos. Grendel was a lonely child, and he had nobody to talk to. After his encounter with the instinctual, mindless bull, he decides that he's lonely because there is nobody for him to talk to: only mindless animals like bulls.

Why does Grendel conclude that he alone exists? To begin with, Grendel's conclusion is a coping mechanism: it's easier for him to believe that he's alone in the universe than it is for him to believe that the other creatures of the universe are afraid of or hate him. On a more basic level, though, Grendel's thought process betrays his need for belief and theory. Grendel (later) sneers at human beliefs, and yet even he relies on "myths" about life--even if his choice of myth is much cruder and more straightforward than humans' myths. Grendel embodies the struggle to make sense of life--in his depression, Grendel decides that he alone exists.

I tried to tell her all that had happened, all that I’d come to understand: the meaningless objectness of the world, the universal bruteness. She only stared, troubled at my noise. She’d forgotten all language long ago, or maybe had never known any.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Grendel’s Mother
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Grendel has just come from a bloody fight with the humans, and he wants to tell his mother what he's just discovered: he wants to tell her how scarring and frightening the fight was. Furthermore, Grendel wants to tell his mother what the fight has taught him: all of life is nothing but a meaningless and violent struggle for power. Unfortunately, Grendel's mother can't talk.

The passage is important because it reinforces the sympathy we're supposed to feel for Grendel. At first, Grendel just wants someone to talk to: his desire for conversation and companionship is far greater than his desire for food or power. And yet when Grendel tries to talk to the humans, he's attacked. Grendel has no friends in the universe--he's persecuted and punished for being an "other," and so he naturally assumes the role thrust upon him: that of a monster.

Chapter 4 Quotes

It was a cold-blooded lie that a god had lovingly made the world and set out the sun and moon as lights to land-dwellers, that brothers had fought, that one of the races was saved, the other cursed. Yet he, the old Shaper, might make it true, by the sweetness of his harp, his cunning trickery. It came to me with a fierce jolt that I wanted it. As they did too, though vicious animals, cunning, cracked with theories. I wanted it, yes! Even if I must be the outcast, cursed by the rules of his hideous fable.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), The Shaper
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Grendel considers everything the Shaper has sung about. In his song, the Shaper claims that Grendel is descended from a semi-Biblical "bad brother" who was punished by god for his disobedience. In other words, the Shaper claims that Grendel is being punished for the sins of his ancestors. Humans, by contrast, are descended from a martyred "good brother." Notice that the Shaper's story echoes the Biblican Cain-Abel story, but with one major modification. In the Bible, Cain kills Abel before Abel can have any children, suggesting that no one is descended from the "good brother." Furthermore, Cain has children of his own and builds the first human city. (Although according to Judeo-Christian tradition, all of Cain's descendants are killed in the Great Flood, and the rest of humanity is descended from Adam and Eve's younger children.) If anything, then, humans are the descendants of the bad brother! But because humans refuse to accept their own sinful nature, they craft a different story, in which they're "good" and Grendel is "bad."

Grendel doesn't believe the Shaper's story, and yet his hunger for stories and art is so great that he accepts it--he wants to believe it. Grendel craves order and meaning in the universe. So even if he is cast as the villain in the Shaper's story, he'll accept this story because of the meaning it provides him. A sad story is better than no story at all.

Chapter 5 Quotes

They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories, their here-to-the-moon-and-back lists of paltry facts.

Related Characters: The Dragon (speaker)
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Grendel goes to visit the Dragon, and the Dragon here gives Grendel the advice he'd passed on to us in an earlier chapter: humans are so obsessed with order and theory that they'll even map out "roads through Hell." The Dragon's point is that humans have the challenge of making sense of utter chaos, a process that the Dragon compares to making maps and road. Humans need to believe that the world is something more than a swirl of meaningless chaos. The Shaper is crucial in fostering optimism and belief among human beings; by singing his songs, the Shaper creates the illusion that the world really is beautiful and sensible--not, as the Dragon believes, chaotic, eternal, and nihilistic.

“A swirl in the stream of time. A temporary gathering of bits, a few random dust specks, so to speak—pure metaphor, you understand—then by chance a vast floating cloud of dustspecks, an expanding universe—” He shrugged. “Complexities: green dust as well as the regular kind. Purple dust. Gold. Additional refinements: sensitive dust, copulating dust, worshipful dust!

Related Characters: The Dragon (speaker)
Page Number: 70-71
Explanation and Analysis:

The dragon continues to offer Grendel a complicated theory of the world. According to the Dragon, all of life is nonsense. Humans like to think that they're special, but in fact, they're not. Humans are just conglomerates of "dust." In the course of a lifetime, humans move all over--a process that amounts to the "swirling" of dust across the planet. In short, the Dragon sees humanity in the basest terms possible: humans' plans, hopes, and culture doesn't matter in the slightest in the larger scheme of thing.

The passage is an elaborate allusion to the Bible, in which God tells humans that they are formed from dust, and will one day return to dust. The Dragon goes above and beyond God's statements, however, by claiming that humans will only ever be dust--no amount of religion or culture can save them from the fundamental meaninglessness of their lives.

Chapter 9 Quotes

The ultimate evil is that Time is perpetual perishing, and being actual involves elimination. The nature of evil may be epitomized, therefore, in two simple but horrible and holy propositions: ‘Things fade’ and ‘Alternatives exclude.’

Related Characters: Ork (speaker)
Page Number: 132-133
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Grendel meets a pathetic priest named Ork. Ork is the very embodiment of mankind's overemphasis on order and control. Ork is extremely religious--he believes that the universe works according to a number of specific laws. There are only two such laws: 1) Things fade, and 2) Alternatives exclude.

It's worth thinking about these two laws a little more closely. Ork believes that all of life will eventually deteriorate into death; in other words, he accepts his own mortality. Second, Ork believes that it's impossible to believe two contradictory things at the same time--you can choose one or the other, but not both. Choosing one belief necessarily means not choosing another.

Grendel's existence challenges the validity of both rules. Grendel is a monster and seems to be exempt from the rules of mortality (he certainly can't be hurt in battle, thanks to the Dragon's charm). Furthermore, Grendel refuses to believe that "alternatives exclude." Instead, he embraces his own contradictions, criticizing waste while being incredibly wasteful; attacking humans while also acknowledging that humans are his only friends, etc. In short, Grendel sneers at Ork and the rules by which Ork lives his life and tries to find meaning in the universe.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Grendel, Grendel! You make the world by whispers, second by second. Are you blind to that? Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses is not the point.

Related Characters: Beowulf (speaker), Grendel
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

In the climactic moments of the novel, Grendel has the encounter he's been craving and fearing for his entire life. He finally faces off against Beowulf, the human hero who eventually kills him. During the course of their fight together, Beowulf mocks Grendel, criticizing Grendel for the way he "makes the world."

Beowulf seems wiser about Grendel's hypocrisies and contradictions than anyone else in the novel. While Hrothgar dismisses Grendel as a mere monster, Beowulf is smart and perceptive enough to recognize Grendel for what he really is: a frustrated storyteller. Moreover, Beowulf truly defeats Grendel by pointing out the basic contradiction in his entire life: Grendel mocks humans for telling silly stories to get through life, and yet Grendel himself has only managed to survive with his sanity because he tells himself stories. Grendel insists that he is the center of his own universe: all of human civilization is his creation. If Grendel were to admit the truth (his life is meaningless) he would go mad with grief.

In short, Beowulf sums up Grendel's entire existence. Beowulf's actions are at once hostile and friendly: paradoxically, Beowulf's insights into Grendel's character suggest that he could have been Grendel's greatest friend (someone who understood Grendel completely), but at the same time Beowulf is destined to act as a human "hero," and thus he must destroy Grendel physically.

“It was an accident,” I bellow back. I will cling to what is true. “Blind, mindless, mechanical. Mere logic of chance.”

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker)
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

Beowulf has just defeated Grendel by ripping off his enormous arm, slowly killing him. Grendel refuses to believe that Beowulf has defeated him fairly and squarely--instead, he insists that Beowulf has won because of sheer dumb luck, because of the random chance of the universe's logic. Had Grendel reached inside the building on a different night, or had Beowulf been stationed somewhere else in the building, Grendel would still be alive.

Grendel's words reiterate his way of looking at the universe. Grendel refuses to acknowledge the existence of fate or destiny: even when he's been defeated, he refuses to admit that a true hero has defeated him. Instead, Grendel tries to downplay Beowulf's achievement, suggesting that Beowulf, in spite of his victory, is just another man. Ultimately, Grendel's true enemy isn't Beowulf; it's heroism itself. Grendel can't stand the idea that some people are meant to be great--and so, with his dying breaths, he continues to insist that Beowulf isn't really a hero at all.